Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO – Exactly who brought football to Brazil and precisely when they did it is still a moot point.

Some say it was Charles Miller, the son of a British railway worker who was building train lines in São Paulo, and others point to Thomas Donohue, a dye worker from Busby in Scotland, who sowed the soccer seed in Rio de Janeiro – both sometime around the late 1890s.

However the sport made the 9,000km leap from Britain, some 120 years later Brazil has earned the title of O País do Futebol – the Land of Football – and deservedly so.

Read Full Article

Rio Sambadrome in full swing

Rio Sambadrome in full swing! Photo by Ben Tavener.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is, in a word, overwhelming – for every one of the senses. Everything gets a good pounding: your ears, eyes, nostrils, and quite definitely your brain.

For some reason it’s taken me three years to get to Rio Carnival – but it was definitely worth it.

There are those who mistakenly think Carnival is all about the samba schools parading at the Sambódromo, which celebrated 30 years of colour and dance this year, but the real heart of Carnival is most certainly in the blocos – the many, many street parties (450+ this year) that adorn Rio’s street and bring large swathes of the city to a grinding halt in a mass of sweaty, alcohol-fuelled dancing and debauchery.

Here is a small taster – click to enlarge photosFor the full gallery, see my Flickr set.

Rio Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio de Janeiro was awash with colour, music and parties this weekend as the annual Carnival celebrations burst onto the city’s streets.

Street parties lured hundreds of thousands of revellers from across the country and the world and top-flight samba schools battling it out to become this year’s Carnival Champion.

Carnival is celebrated through the country, but Rio de Janeiro hosts the biggest party – attracting an estimated 920,000 tourists from both home and abroad in 2014 – up 2.2 percent on last year’s figures.

At the Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener

União da Tijuca won the 2014 crown. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Carnival-related tourism will also bring in US$950 million for the local economy, according to Brazil’s tourism board.

The city’s world-famous Sapucaí Sambadrome, designed by the late renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, has been marking its 30th anniversary. Built in 1984, it is the venue for what the city bills as “The Greatest show on Earth” – the yearly samba school competitions.

Beginning on Sunday, top-flight special group samba schools continued for a second night on Monday to try to impress and surprise judges and wow audiences with their jaw-dropping floats and meticulously-choreographed routines in a final bid to become this year’s champion.

Schools fighting for the champions’ crown spend up to US$7 million on their parade, which they spend the whole year getting just right: each school depicts a historical or allegorical story through song, dance and costume, and each has around an hour to make their way down the length of the Sambadrome – a process involving thousands of dancers which takes spectators into the small hours of the next morning.

An intense two-day wait for judges to make their minds up then follows before the announcement.

UPDATE: União da Tijuca have been crowned the 2014 Carnival champions!

Million at street parties, despite mounting rubbish

However, most come to Rio not for the Sambadrome, but for the street parties – known as blocos – of which 465 have been hosted across Rio throughout the Carnival period this year, and some have drawn enormous crowds – many in fancy dress or drag.

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

The Cordão do Bola Preta street party – the city’s oldest and one of the biggest – united over a million partygoers on the streets of Rio’s historic Centro region.

A number of the parties are themed and while some are more family-friendly, they are well-known for their alcohol-fuelled debauchery.

The morning-after sight of streets strewn with rubbish is a common one at Carnival, but has been exacerbated this year in no small way by a strike by street cleaners the city’s municipal cleaning company, Comlurb.

Around 400 street sweepers tried to march on the Sambadrome on Sunday afternoon but were met by military police and clashes ensued as police began to disperse the group.

Rubbish was piled up in many central regions of the city, after some street parties attracted far more revellers than expected.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s trash piled everywhere and the place doesn’t smell great,” Julie, 26, a visitor from the United States, told an Anadolu Agency correspondent at the city’s AfroReggae bloco. “But this is still an amazing party, so we have no regrets in terms of coming here. Rio is gorgeous.”

The number of toilets at the sites was also noticeably lacking.

Even the Sambadrome was left looking worse for wear as the lack of cleaners left refuse strewn down the parade street at the middle of the 70,000-capacity venue.

Biggest protests in a generation

This year’s Carnival was also different for another, more subtle reason: it was the first to take place since the outbreak of mass anti-government protests seen throughout Brazil since last June – the biggest protests the country had seen in a generation.

Although protests were called for by some groups on social media website, including one under a banner of “Occupy Carnival!”, no World Cup-related or anti-government protests took place and locals say Carnival was always unlikely to see any major protests.

Rio's street parties - the "blocos" - are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio’s street parties – the “blocos” – are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

“I’m not interested in protesting during Carnival. I’ve come all the way from Fortaleza to be here in Rio – the protests can start again afterwards, but now it’s time to party and have fun with friends,” Vitor, an 18-year-old engineering student, told AA.

Twenty-four-year-old Bruna, from Rio, agreed: “I’m not happy with the World Cup coming here, and our government still needs to know we’re angry, but this isn’t the time or place.”

Although crowds at the sporadic anti-government and anti-World Cup protests have now dwindled, they have continued with much more momentum than many observers initially credited them with.

Big protests by the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There Won’t Be a World Cup) group on social media sites are being organized at least every month, and protests are being planned for the time of the World Cup as well.

Spotlight on Brazil

The world is now watching with heightened interest as Brazil holds its final major dress rehearsal to show it can deal with hosting the huge international events – something which Brazil, and in particularly Rio, has said it is already has a good track record in doing – with annual events such as the Réveillon New Year’s party and Carnival.

Não Vai Ter Copa. Anti-World Cup poster. Photo by Ben Tavener

Não Vai Ter Copa. An anti-World Cup poster in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil has now had several mainly successful dry runs including the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day last year.

Security has also been ramped up across Rio and other cities in Brazil, and both military and riot police have been on the streets to maintain order and visitor safety.

Last week, officials said 150,000 police and soldiers would be deployed, as well as 20,000 private security agents, across the twelve stadiums to keep protests under control and allow fans to get to their games – something FIFA urged Brazil to guarantee in recent weeks.

Concerns about infrastructure and hosting tourists have been largely masked by anxieties whether the country will have stadiums ready and delivered to FIFA on time.

Stadiums in Curitiba and São Paulo are currently representing the greatest worries for FIFA and are likely only to be ready in May – a month before the first World Cup match. São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium is scheduled to host the opening game between Brazil and Croatia on 12 June.

Extended version of article for Anadolu Agency

Rio's civil and military police, as well as its firefighters, are now on strike, and 14,000 soldiers are in town to replace them - just days before Carnaval is set to start.

When I was being interviewed on Canadian national news the other week, one of the questions I was asked was whether Rio would suffer a PR disaster as a result of the multiple building collapse which killed at least 17 people in downtown Rio. 

At that point, my thoughts were mainly that Rio could probably manage to shrug this off before the sporting mega-events – the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics – make it to Brazil. There’s a long time to go, right?

But now more bad news, and for Brazil’s tourism industry, the last few weeks have been the most challenging for years.

In the Bahia state capital, Salvador, a violent stand-off between police officers on strike over pay and conditions, and the army soldiers brought in to replace them, brought chaos to the streets of the city and the wider state, and more worryingly a doubling of the number of murder victims.

It was another piece of bad news Brazil didn’t want plastered around the world’s press, coming just two weeks after the buildings collapse. It raised questions about Brazil’s poor infrastructure and its ability to welcome visitors – let alone holding the sporting mega-events it is hosting in the coming years.

And now there could be worse to come.

Last night 14,000 army troops took to the streets of Rio as the city’s civil and military police went on strike, along with the fire service, over pay and conditions. For Brazil’s most-visited city, the timing couldn’t be worse: next week sees the start of the one event of the year that lures more tourists to Brazil than any other – Carnaval.

Despite reassuring words from Rio’s officials that everything is under control and that “security at Carnaval is guaranteed”, they are anxious. They do not want a repeat of this week’s events in Bahia while nearly five million visitors descend on the city.

The event is undoubtedly the biggest in Rio’s calendar and in Brazil’s shop window – and each year it paralyses the country with its energy, colour and samba vibes. Images of the festival, traditionally held the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, are paraded around the world as the country’s biggest piece of bait for international tourists.

Last year’s Carnaval attracted 4.9 million people to the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvellous City”, as the locals call Rio), according to the City Hall, including 400,000 foreigners – generating around R$1.2 billion – around US$740 million – and it’s big business for Brazil’s other cities, too.

The country’s increased presence in the world’s media – including in a number of movies, such as last year’s blockbuster animation Rio – and its ever more confident position on the world political stage all mean the world has never felt closer to Brazil.

And Brazil is investing a lot of money into making sure they still come, whatever the headlines say.

The result is that the country’s tourism industry is thriving; the fact that Brazil’s expanding middle class now have more money in their pockets means Brazil’s fledgling domestic industry is taking off in tandem with its international one.

Industry experts say this is leading to better standards across the board – and a world-class experience for tourists.

And although question marks still hang over parts of the country’s infrastructure, major improvements have been made in terms of security – particularly with Rio’s ongoing reclaiming of the remaining lawless, gang-ruled favelas, a process known as pacificação in Portuguese – mean few travellers have been put off, and most face their trip to Brazil with a sense of adventure.

And it’s this mentality, something that seems to be shared by a lot of tourists coming to Brazil, which keeps the crowds coming, and in growing numbers.

Travellers coming to Brazil are generally aware of what they’re letting themselves in for – and the country’s beaches, food, culture and general energy nearly always manage to trump any stories of Rio’s pickpockets or queues at the airports.

Of the estimated five million foreign visitors who came to Brazil last year, Argentina and the US top the list, but a growing number are coming from Europe – particularly from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK – as Brazil becomes more and more accessible to global markets.